Sunday, June 26, 2011

I met Harry Belafonte at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

Never Done: I went to the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival

It's strange that I've never before gone to the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival -- it's a film festival with my name written all over it. When my friend P invited me out Saturday night, and I looked at the lineup, I immediately homed in on a film about Harry Belafonte's 60+ years of music and intense, thoughtful, engaged, global political activism: Sing Your Song. The problem was, lots of other people had also homed in on that film -- it was already sold out. But P knew someone who works for HRW, who told her there was a chance she might be able to get her some tickets, and that we should go early and wait in the standby line, and see whether or not she could score us some tickets.

We showed up over an hour early, and there were already 25 people in line ahead of us. The man right in front of us told us that he'd tried to get tickets three weeks ago, when they first went on sale, and that it was already sold out. He also let us know (in the course of conversation -- not just randomly) that he's not jaded, and that he works hard to remain un-jaded while still living in cynical New York. (He hails from Jamaica.) The man who came to line just was also not a native New Yorker (he comes from Belize) and in addition to being particularly knowledgeable about Harry Belafonte, was also interested in black film. It was one of those times, the four of us in this line waiting for a movie we didn't know if we'd get to see, that I felt that a film festival line made a city smaller, and brought together four people who were surprisingly well-suited to hang out together for an hour.

And then our free tickets came through, and we promised to save them seats in case they got in, and we parted ways. (One of them got in and joined us -- ironically, the unjaded one did not get a ticket, and left before finding out that there were at least 10 empty seats in the house, some of them right next to us, despite the fact that only a few people were admitted from the standby line.)

But all of this is side story compared to the main event of the evening: the film about Harry Belafonte, and Harry himself, who was interviewed after the screening by Amy Goodman. The film will screen on HBO in the Fall, so you will have a chance to see it then. It's too long (although maybe HBO will require a more concise cut) but it spends its time well: detailing Belafonte's incredible career, not only as a singer, but as a human rights activist and political advisor. He's been everywhere -- with MLK, in Ethiopia, Haiti, South Africa, Cuba -- and now that I think about it, probably the best argument for cutting the film down is to avoid Forrest Gump references. But Belafonte is no simpleton (like Gump) -- but is instead an astute political thinker with unflagging moral character.

He was red baited, CIA and FBI infiltrated by his own psychoanalyst, and yet talk about not becoming jaded. At 83, he is still an unflagging voice for social justice -- always lending his celebrity, his money, and just as importantly his political analysis wherever he sees it could have an impact. In the post-screening interview, Amy Goodman asked him about his connections with Paul Robeson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedys, A. Philip Randolph's influence over Teddy Roosevelt, and and finally -- whether he thought it would be possible to similarly influence Obama, and whether he (Belafonte) intends to do it.

His answer was riveting. He said that he thought that it's more possible to influence Obama than any other president in history, but that at the same time he is deeply disappointed in Obama -- that he sees no evidence of his moral courage. And yet, Belafonte has not given up on him. Thinks he's reachable. Thinks that he needs people to show him that you can't yield morality to political pragmatism and still maintain a reputation as someone who cares about humanity.

My takeaway from the evening was Belafonte's commitment, hope, persistence, and lack of jaded cynicism. I hope that whenever I think I should yield my morality to political pragmatism, that I can remember his example, and sing out on the side of justice.

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